Benicio del Toro: the reluctant Escobar

Pablo Escobar, who died in 1993, remains one of the most notorious drug dealers to have walked the earth. At the height of his powers, according to his brother, he was reportedly smuggling half a billion dollars worth of cocaine into the United States every day.
Benecio del Toro in Escobar: Pardise Lost. Courtesy Chapter 2
Benecio del Toro in Escobar: Pardise Lost. Courtesy Chapter 2

Initially Oscar winner Benicio del Toro didn’t want to star in a film about Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.

“I wasn’t interested in doing a biopic, and I thought it would be a biopic. Then, when I read it, I thought it was a unique way of seeing Pablo and I thought there was something that I could stick my teeth into.”

Escobar, who died in 1993, remains one of the most notorious drug dealers to have walked the earth. At the height of his powers, according to his brother, he was reportedly smuggling half a billion dollars worth of cocaine into the United States every day.

But first-time director Andrea Di Stefano, a former actor who had roles in Life of Pi and Nine, wasn’t just interested in showing the demonic side of the drug baron. Escobar had cultivated a Robin Hood persona in Colombia and even had a short political career in 1983. The thriller starts with Escobar campaigning, with Di Stefano aiming to show all his sides: the ruthless drug runner, the father, and the man of the people. To that end, Di Stefano decided that he also needed to embellish the truth.

“During my research for the project,” says Di Stefano, “I was told by an Italian undercover cop about the story of a man who became close friends with Pablo and was giving a job to go into the mountains and build bunkers. When he finished the job he found out that killers had been after him. So I was interested in these two dynamics, one he was glad to be alive, but two, he was very hurt that Pablo had turned on him.”

It was while reading a book written by Pablo’s brother, Roberto, that Di Stefano came up with the character of Maria, Pablo’s niece: “Just days before her uncle went to prison, her boyfriend was killed in a bomb explosion. She went to see Pablo and slapped him in front of everyone. I was drawn to such a character, a person not afraid of a man like that.”

For her boyfriend, he came up with the story of a young Canadian called Nick, played by The Hunger Games star Josh Hutcherson. He merged several stories, so that Nick plays plays a central role, serving as confidante to Escobar and his niece. It was a dream role for Hutcherson, the perfect vehicle for him to escape the young adult roles with which he made his name.

“I was nervous for sure,” Hutcherson explains at the Zurich Film Festival. “It wasn’t like I was searching for a role to break away from The Hunger Games, it just came with the story. It was definitely the most pressure that I’ve had to perform, to have the plot riding on it. If I sucked, the film was going to be bad.”

He was helped by his friendship with Del Toro. Hutcherson had been the star of a short film that Del Toro directed in 2012 as part of the 7 Days in Havana project. He’s full of praise for his co-star.

“I think Benicio is a guy that lives the character. As an actor the goal is not to put yourself into the character but to live as them and he does that completely.”

There was an unusual connection between Del Toro and Escobar. “He was a fan of Elvis and went to Graceland, which is something I did, that we had in common.”

Escobar: Paradise Lost screens as part of the Dubai International Film Festival at Madinat Arena on Saturday, December 13 at 6pm and Mall of the Emirates 11 on Wednesday December 17 at 3pm.

artslife@thenational.ae

Published: December 8, 2014 04:00 AM

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